"In these circumstances… it would be for the general benefit to form in this country a council of Christians and Jews.”
So stated an announcement in The Times in October 1942; the circumstances were a country recovering from the Blitz, a continent divided by war and a community getting to grips with the horrors of the Nazi regime. Perhaps it’s not surprising that such a troubled period gave birth to efforts to forge interfaith relations — back then Anglo-Jewry had everything to gain from building bridges.
Over the last century, British Jews have defined ourselves as much by what makes us the same as everyone else as by what makes us different. We are celebrated for — and ourselves celebrate — our efforts towards integration, our commitment to fitting in and contributing to Britain’s wider prosperity. Jewish refugees here are commended not just for making good, but for being outward-looking while still retaining a communal identity. Coexisting peaceably with those of no faith, and working to develop stronger links with Britain’s other religious groups, is clearly part of that.
In the last few weeks, two stories have stuck out. The first is the abhorrent reaction of hopefully a small minority to the plans for the Golders Green Hippodrome to become an Islamic community centre. The second is an Observer report into how the Charedim of Canvey Island are settling into one of the most pro-Brexit places in the UK.
To the first, this paper has covered it extensively and others have more eloquently registered that, had this been opposition to a shul, we would have rightly called it out as prejudice. It’s clearly not about parking. As someone living in the area, which, by the way, is far from the Jewish-only hub many assume, with its Polish shops and Japanese restaurants, the only shame is that this building could not revert to its glory days of being a theatre.
Meanwhile, the Observer piece painted a picture of unexpected harmony; of curiosity on both sides being welcomed. The reception from the islanders has been “fantastic”, said one community member, explaining that he and others recently attended a Rotary Club event. How refreshing.
And also, how important, and how much is this the norm? While the census recorded Jews in every local authority, the fact is we are living en masse in fewer places. From small but sizeable populations nationwide, we are now clustering in the “bagel belt” or its northern outposts, 54,000 of us in Barnet alone, at last count. British Jews — at least those for whom Jewishness is a defining part of their identity — flock ever more to the same places, at university and once we settle and have families. Myself included.
This is the future direction too, with Jewish schools on the ascendant. I see their advantages, but also find it hard to disagree that they separate off the community and divide rather than unite, especially at secondary level. Having attended a non-Jewish school, one of the things I loved was learning about other cultures and religions first-hand. From carols and constructing the class’s Christmas postbox to marvelling over the Indian girls’ traditional dancing, my only regret is I didn’t get more exposure.
Neither trend has to be problematic, but they do raise questions, not least around how we plug the gaps they create. There are obvious reasons why bridge-building with non-Jewish communities and interfaith (and no faith) engagement matter, not least in having someone to speak up when we are under threat. But it goes beyond that. It’s about the kind of community we want to be; one that is part of society and committed to building a shared future in the country we see as home.
Across Orthodoxy, Masorti, Reform and Liberal, the established community works hard at this. Yet it’s not our official representatives who will build the strongest relationships and challenge assumptions and misconceptions, but individuals talking to people from other backgrounds and faiths on campuses, in Rotary Clubs, in offices, in pubs. And, yes, in Islamic community centres built in “Jewish” areas. We don’t have to be standard-bearers for our religion at all times, but we should, must embrace chances to ask questions and answer them. And insofar as possible, we should proactively seek those chances. Certainly, let’s see the Hippodrome’s new purpose as an opportunity, not a threat.
Perhaps we have less need to look outwards to our relationships with wider society than we did 75 years ago. That doesn’t mean we should ignore the value of doing so.